In the third season of the Netflix series The Crown, Prince Philip meets with clergy attending a retreat at a newly-established “center of recovery and renewal” on the grounds of Windsor Castle. Dean Robin Woods is facilitating the retreat; I’m sure he expects the prince to give a word of welcome and encouragement. Maybe he hopes participants will be pleased by the mere presence of a prince.
Instead, Prince Philip forthrightly rebukes the priests for all their navel-gazing and ruminating about their lives and ministries. He tells them that what they need is “Action!”
The stunned clergy and dean have nothing to say—at least, in the scene. But as the episode unfolds, it becomes apparent that the prince is dealing with his own middle-age crisis of life and faith. His rebuke of the clergy is aimed equally at himself. From that moment on, Prince Philip’s life unfolds differently. (You’ll have to watch The Crown to find out how.)
The episode reminded me of something one of my clients said recently. He told me that when he faces situations that are overwhelming and he does not know what to do or how to respond, he sometimes literally puts the hood of his “hoodie” over his head and just sits for a while.
As I listened to my client, I was thinking judgmental thoughts. I might occasionally be tempted to do something like this, but usually I follow another inclination—like what Prince Philip encouraged: to do something, anything, rather than withdraw or ruminate.
Feeling critical of my client’s hoodie practice. I thought to myself: “You are avoiding what you should be approaching. You are zoning out when you should be tuning in. You are separating when you should be connecting.”
Of course, there was some truth in what I was thinking, but it was also shortsighted.
Fortunately, I was able to hold off my initial reaction and listen with curiosity and some compassion to what my client was experiencing. Don’t many of us who work with congregations sometimes feel like retreating? Many clergy leaders that I coach feel unprepared for the leadership, personal and cultural challenges that we encounter day to day. If we only knew what “action” to take, we most likely would!
But even if someone suggested a quick action and we were tempted to take it, soon most likely we would turn suspicious and skeptical.
I came to realize that—for this client, and perhaps for many of us—this hoodie practice may be just what we need. It might be an essential part of moving toward a healthy, constructive response. Rather than act prematurely, we sometimes need to simply turn it off for a while. We need times when we can—figuratively if not literally—put the hood of our “hoodie” on, and stay there for a bit.
“Hoodie time” can only be a temporary stopping place, but it’s worth learning to use it well. Recently I’ve been enjoying Jeffrey Kottler’s book What You Don’t Know About Leadership But Probably Should, which distills research on leadership into practices for leaders. Near the end of the book, Kottler concludes, “It’s not just what you do, but who you are.” He offers these questions:
- Are you having fun?
- Are you learning something new?
- Are you stimulated and excited?
- Are you engaging deeply in intimate connections with others?
- Are you really making a difference?
These questions can be helpful ones to ask ourselves or one another, particularly when we take some “hoodie time” at this halfway point of the congregation year.
Avoidance or Acceptance?
What I first understood only as avoidance on my client’s part, I later came to recognize also as acceptance. When any of us reaches our limit, when we don’t know what to do, when we exhaust our own capacities, we need to take a moment to accept our experience and show self-compassion before acting.
Sometimes as clergy leaders, we engage in outward action too quickly before coming to acknowledge and accept our inner condition. An African-American spiritual captures some of this self-acceptance:
It’s me, it’s me, O Lord,
Standin’ in the need of prayer;
It’s me, it’s me, O Lord,
Standin’ in the need of prayer.
Not my father, not my mother,
But it’s me, oh Lord,
Standing in the need of prayer.
The path of real change often has a stopping place: a turn-around place, a place called acceptance.
Call it Balcony Time, if You Want
Most of our religious traditions encourage taking time apart—time to be prayerful, to slow down, to connect with our inner self, our Inner Light, with God or Spirit—and listen as our life speaks to us.
In the course on Adaptive Leadership that I teach at seminaries, students often admit that their busy ministries and lives don’t provide them the time apart for reflection. They are driven by their “to-do list” and by email responses. Who has time for the “balcony time” Ron Heifetz recommends as an essential practice for adaptive leaders?
In the course, I offer students tools for personal reflection about their leadership: journal writing, reflective questions, structured exercises for observing, interpreting and designing actions for their leadership. I encourage them to find ways to gather even a few key leaders to take time together for deep reflection and inquiry.
When we pause, when we listen to ourselves and our own heart, after we reflect and accept where we are, we may find the capacity to remove the hoodie and look at our life and our world with soft eyes.
What we do as clergy leaders is important. How we communicate with those we lead matters a great deal. But just as significant, and maybe more so, is how we tend ourselves—attend to who we are.